Brandy – lo­cal re­ally is lekker

We pro­duce some of the best brandies in the world, but drinkers seem to have strayed away from the tasty trea­sure

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Drink­ing is about so much more than just quench­ing your thirst. Es­pe­cially when it comes to booze. Our choice of al­co­hol is al­most never so­cially neu­tral – what we drink de­ter­mines how we per­ceive our­selves and how oth­ers per­ceive us. A beer drinker is as­sumed to be a dif­fer­ent sort of per­son from a cock­tail con­sumer. Craft beer afi­ciona­dos and Cas­tle fans are thought of dif­fer­ently. With­out hav­ing met any of the in­di­vid­u­als in­volved, we clas­sify them (and they clas­sify them­selves) by bev­er­age choice.

Of­ten, we or­der with a view to how oth­ers will per­ceive our choice and the drink serves as a sym­bolic ve­hi­cle for iden­ti­fy­ing, de­scrib­ing and ma­nip­u­lat­ing so­cial po­si­tion. So, what does it mean if a drink falls out of favour?

In re­cent years, there has been a con­sid­er­able de­cline in South African con­sump­tion of lo­cally pro­duced brandies and a con­sid­er­able move­ment of mar­ket share from brandy to whiskey. The 2016 SA Wine In­dus­try Statis­tics re­port states that, be­tween 1999 and 2015, con­sump­tion of lo­cally pro­duced brandy fell from 43.7 mil­lion litres to 31.6 mil­lion litres, while im­ported whiskey sales rose from 22.6 mil­lion litres to 39 mil­lion litres over the same pe­riod. Co­gnac sales have risen less starkly, but they are def­i­nitely on the way up.

This move away from lo­cal brandy has noth­ing to do with qual­ity. South Africa makes world-class brandy and we have the in­ter­na­tional prizes to prove it. Hon­ours and ac­co­lades are so nu­mer­ous that to men­tion them all is im­pos­si­ble. Our re­cent tri­umph came at the pres­ti­gious 2016 In­ter­na­tional Spir­its Chal­lenge in Lon­don, where KWV was named the World’s Best Brandy and Co­gnac Pro­ducer. With that, KWV beat Cog­nacs and brandies from 70 coun­tries.

And yet, we drink less and less brandy and more and more whiskey. Why? Pref­er­ence for an in­ter­na­tional of­fer­ing is not un­com­mon. All over the world, con­sumers re­gard im­ported or “for­eign” drinks as hav­ing a higher sta­tus than lo­cal bev­er­ages. In Poland, wine is re­garded as a high-sta­tus, up­per-class drink, while lo­cally made beers and vod­kas are “or­di­nary” or work­ing class. In France, by con­trast, where wine-drink­ing is com­mon­place and con­fers no special sta­tus, the young elite in­creas­ingly drink im­ported beers and vod­kas. The role that price and sta­tus per­cep­tions play be­comes es­pe­cially ap­par­ent when one con­sid­ers Co­gnac con­sump­tion. Co­gnac is per force im­ported (see side­bar), thus un­favourable ex­change rates of­ten de­ter­mine its South African price at least as much as qual­ity. And yet we in­creas­ingly or­der it in pref­er­ence to ar­guably bet­ter lo­cal brandies. Many bar own­ers re­port that there is a wide­spread mis­con­cep­tion among South Africans that Co­gnac is a form of whiskey and that when Co­gnac drinkers are told that their favourite tip­ple is es­sen­tially a re­gional form of brandy, they are dis­ap­pointed.

No one is knock­ing whiskey or Co­gnac. Good whiskey is won­der­ful and great Co­gnac is gor­geous, but it is worth recog­nis­ing that on a price-for-price ba­sis, lower qual­ity im­ports are matched with mid- to high-qual­ity lo­cal prod­uct. Of course, pre­mium im­ported drinks with unique char­ac­ter­is­tics merit their prices, but savvy drinkers can drink pre­mium brandy for the price of midto poor-qual­ity whiskey and Co­gnac. So why don’t we? Brandy has an image prob­lem. But it is un­clear quite what the prob­lem is. In­ter­views sug­gest that some re­sis­tance is linked to the brandy-and-coke-laden legacy of apartheid in­equal­ity. This is per­haps in­di­cated by the fact that town­ship slang for Oude Meester is “De Klerky” be­cause the la­bel on the bot­tle has a pic­ture of a bald, old white man who re­sem­bles for­mer pres­i­dent FW de Klerk.

For oth­ers, brandy’s con­nec­tion to the ru­ral en­vi­ron­ment seems to put them off. Many in­ter­vie­wees men­tioned sto­ries of East­ern Cape mi­grant minework­ers bring­ing brandy home at Christmas, and their neigh­bours com­ing for “ihambi dlani” (which roughly trans­lates to “what you were hav­ing on the way”). Intsebenzo (wealth) be­ing mea­sured in the num­ber of brandy bot­tles at hand came up re­peat­edly. There was much mut­ter­ing about im­beleko birth rit­u­als and lobola cus­toms.

If the lat­ter is in­flu­enc­ing bev­er­age choice, then this is the worst sort of ur­ban snob­bery. If it is the for­mer and drinkers are seek­ing to score a blow against the Stel­len­bosch mafia, they are do­ing so at the ex­pense of our econ­omy.

Lo­cally pro­duced brandies cre­ate jobs in South Africa – as is recog­nised by Trea­sury in its im­po­si­tion of a rel­a­tively low ex­cise tax on the wine in­dus­try (of which brandy is a part) in recog­ni­tion of its em­ploy­ment con­tri­bu­tion. Beer has a higher tax be­cause it em­ploys far fewer peo­ple.

It is time South Africans ex­am­ined their at­ti­tudes to brandy. This Christmas, why not buy a bot­tle (or two) of our lo­cal trea­sure. You will be so glad you did.

TALK TO US Why do you choose to drink what you do? What does your drink say about you?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word BRANDY and tell us what you think. Please in­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R1.50

GOLD IN A GLASS What we drink some­times serves as a sym­bolic ve­hi­cle for iden­ti­fy­ing, de­scrib­ing and ma­nip­u­lat­ing so­cial po­si­tion The stun­ning Koenigsegg CCXR Tre­vita costs a cool R20.8 mil­lion

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